CHAPTER ONETHE CLOTHES OF OTHERS
Mma Ramotswe, owner of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency (as featured in a two-page article in the Botswana Daily News,
under the headline: A Lady Who Definitely Knows How to Find Things Out), had strong views on the things that she owned. Personal possessions, she thought, should be simple, well made and not too expensive. Mma Ramotswe was generous in all those circumstances where generosity was required—but she was never keen to pay one hundred pula for something that could be obtained elsewhere for eighty pula, or to get rid of any item that, although getting on a bit, still served its purpose well enough. And that, she thought, was the most important consideration of all—whether something worked. A possession did not have to be fashionable; it did not have to be the very latest thing; what mattered was that it did what it was supposed to do, and did this in the way expected of it. In that respect, there was not much difference between things and people: what she looked for in people was the quality of doing what they were meant to do, and doing it without too much fuss, noise or complaint. She also felt that if something was doing its job then you should hold on to it and cherish it, rather than discarding it in favour of something new. Her white van, for instance, was now rather old and inclined to rattle, but it never failed to start—except after a rain storm, which was rare enough in a dry country like Botswana—and it got her from place to place—except when she ran out of fuel, or when it broke down, which it did from time to time, but not too often.
She applied the same philosophy to her shoes and clothing. It was true that she was always trying to persuade her husband, Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni, to get rid of his old shirts and jackets, but that was because he, like all men, or certainly the majority of men, tended to hold on to his clothes for far too long. His shoes were an example of that failing: he usually extracted at least four years’ service out of his oil-stained working boots, his veldschoen.
He recognised her distaste for these shoes by removing them when he came back from the garage each evening, but he was adamant that any other footwear, including the new waterproof oil- resistant work boots he had seen featured in a mail order catalogue, would be a pointless extravagance.
“There is no point in having fancy boots if you’re a mechanic,” he said. “What you need is boots that you know will always be there.”
“But new boots would also always be there,” she pointed out. “It’s not as if they would march off by themselves.”
Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni laughed. “Oh, I don’t think shoes would be that disobedient,” he said. “What I mean is that you want shoes that you know—that you trust. I have always liked those boots. They are the ones I’ve always worn. I know my way around them.”
Mma Ramotswe looked puzzled. “But surely there’s not much to know about shoes,” she argued. “All you have to know is which way round they go. You wouldn’t want to put them on back to front, nor put the left shoe on the right foot. But is there much to know beyond that?”
The conversation went nowhere, as it always did when this subject was raised, and Mma Ramotswe had come to accept that men’s clothing was a lost cause. There might be a small number of men who were conscious of their apparel and did not hold on to old shoes and clothes for too long, but if there were, then she certainly was not married to one of them. Her own clothes were a quite different matter, of course. She did not spend an excessive amount on dresses, or on shoes for that matter, but she believed in quality and would never buy cheap clothes for the sake of saving a few pula. What she wanted from her clothes was the ability to stand up to the normal demands of the working day, easy laundering, and, if at all possible, light ironing qualities. If clothes had that, then it did not matter if they were not of the latest style or were of a colour that had ceased to be fashionable. If Mma Ramotswe was comfortable in them, and if they responded to the structural challenges posed by the traditionally built figure, then she embraced them enthusiastically, and they, in their way, reciprocated—particularly with those parts of her figure that needed support.
Given this attitude to the functionality of clothes, it was no surprise that she and her erstwhile assistant, now her co-director, Mma Grace Makutsi, wife of Mr. Phuti Radiphuti of the Double Comfort Furniture Store, should not see eye to eye on fashion matters. When she had first started at the agency, Mma Makutsi had not been in a position to spend much money on clothing. In fact, she could spend no
money on clothes, for the simple reason that she had none. What savings Mma Makutsi and her family had were committed almost entirely to the fees she had to pay the Botswana Secretarial College, leaving very little for anything else. Then, when she was given the job at the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, Mma Ramotswe had been unable to pay her much of a salary, as the truth of the matter was that the agency’s minuscule profits did not really justify the employment of any staff.
But Mma Makutsi had talked herself into the job and had been prepared to accept the tiny salary on the grounds that in the fullness of time things would surely look up. They did, and when she found she had a bit of money in her pocket—although not all that much—she spent at least some of it on replacements for her two increasingly worn dresses. She also splashed out on some new shoes—a handsome pair of court shoes with green leather on the outside and blue lining within. She had never seen anything more beautiful than that pair of shoes, and they had imparted a spring to her step that Mma Ramotswe, and all others dealing with Mma Makutsi, had noticed, even if they did not know to attribute it to new footwear.
Following her marriage to Phuti Radiphuti, Mma Makutsi’s wardrobe expanded. Phuti was well off, and although he did not believe in flaunting wealth, he was strongly of the view that the wife of a man of his standing, with his herd of over six hundred cattle, should be dressed in a way that was commensurate with her station in life.
Mma Ramotswe had helped Mma Makutsi on that first big spending spree, when they had gone to the Riverwalk shops and purchased a dozen dresses, several petticoats, a rail of blouses and, of course, several pairs of new shoes.
“It’s not that I’d buy all these things,” Mma Makutsi had observed apologetically. “You know that I am not one of these people who like to wear a different outfit every day—you know that, don’t you, Mma Ramotswe?”
It had seemed to Mma Ramotswe that Mma Makutsi needed reassurance, as we all do from time to time, and she gave it. “Nobody would accuse you of being that sort of lady, Mma,” she said, as they staggered through under the weight of numerous boxes and bags to Mma Ramotswe’s tiny white van. “I certainly wouldn’t.”
“It’s Phuti, you see,” explained Mma Makutsi. “He wants me to look smart.”
“That’s very good,” said Mma Ramotswe. “It is better to have a husband who knows what you are wearing than to have one who doesn’t even notice. Some men never notice, you know. They have no idea what women are wearing.”
“That is a great pity for their wives and girlfriends,” said Mma Makutsi. “It must be very discouraging to dress up all the time only to find that your husband doesn’t even see what you have on.”
The taste of the two women was similar in some respects—but different in others. Their views diverged on shoes, but they both agreed that women should dress modestly and should not wear skirts that were too short. This view was probably shared by the vast majority of women in Botswana, even if not by absolutely all of them. Some young women, they had noticed, seemed to have picked up the idea that the more leg a skirt displayed, the more fashionable it was.
“I do not understand that,” said Mma Makutsi. “Men know that women have legs—that is one of the things that they learn at an early age. So why do you have to show them that you have legs, when they are already well aware of that?”
Mma Ramotswe agreed. She might not have put it exactly that way herself, but she shared the general sentiment.
Mma Makutsi was warming to her theme. “Of course, I remember the first time I saw really short skirts,” she went on. “It was when I came down from Bobonong and I went to enroll at the Botswana Secretarial College. I remember that day very well, Mma.”
“I’m sure you do,” said Mma Ramotswe. “It must have been very different for you, coming from Bobonong and then finding yourself in Gaborone.”
Mma Makutsi stiffened. “Why, Mma? Why do you think that?”
Mma Ramotswe quickly corrected herself. Mma Makutsi was proud of Bobonong and she would not wish to offend her. One of the things she had learned about human nature was that people tended to be inordinately proud of the place they came from, and that any disparaging remark about that place was hurtful—even if it happened to be true. There were some towns—indeed some countries—that were, by all accounts, difficult places to live; and yet even if everything that was said about them was true, you could not say as much to people who came from such places. What they wanted to hear was that you had heard good reports of their home town or their country, and that one day you hoped you would be able to visit it. That brought smiles of satisfaction and assurances that half of what was said or written about the place in question being difficult—or downright dangerous—was exaggeration and lies.
“What I mean,” Mma Ramotswe said, “is that Bobonong is not as big as Gaborone. That is all. I was thinking of how it must feel to come from a small place to a big place. There is nothing wrong with Bobonong, Mma. It is a very fine place.”
Mollified by this explanation, Mma Makutsi pointed out that Mma Ramotswe had herself made a similar transition. “Of course, you came from Mochudi, Mma,” she said. “That is just a village, after all.”
“Well, there we are,” said Mma Ramotswe, relieved at the defusing of the discussion. “We are both village girls at heart.” She paused, and then added, “But coping very well in the city—both of us.”
They returned to Mma Makutsi’s first day at the Botswana Secretarial College and to the topic of short skirts.
“There I was,” Mma Makutsi continued. “I was, I admit it, a bit nervous about being at college. There were thirty-two girls in my year and they all seemed to be so much more confident than I was. They knew Gaborone well, and talked about places I had never even heard of—about which shop sold what, and where you could get your hair or nails done. These were things I’d never even thought about, let alone explored, and I was very much out of it, Mma. I had no idea what to say.”
“We’ve all had that sort of experience,” said Mma Ramotswe. “Every one of us, Mma. We’ve all had a first day at school, or a first day in a new job. We’ve all been unsure what to do.”
Mma Makutsi gazed out of the window. “I just sat there, Mma. I sat at the back of the class with all these other girls talking to one another as if they had been friends for many years. I knew nobody, Mma—not a single soul. And then . . .”
Mma Ramotswe waited. She could picture Mma Makutsi in those early days at the Botswana Secretarial College—earnest and attentive, desperate to make a success of this great chance she had been given, trying hard not to worry about where the next pula
was coming from; hungry, no doubt, because she would have had to choose between food and textbooks, and would have chosen the latter.
Mma Makutsi took off her large round spectacles and began to polish them. Mma Ramotswe had noticed that this was an action that preceded the recollection of something painful, and so she was not too surprised by what followed.
“And then,” she continued, “at the end of that very first lecture—it was a lecture on the importance of high standards, Mma, and it was delivered by the principal herself—at the end of that first lecture we went outside for a short break. Because I was sitting at the back, I was the last out, and the others were all standing in groups, all chatting in the same way as they had been earlier on. I did not know where to go and so I was pleased when one of the girls called me over to join her group. She said, ‘Why don’t you come and talk to us?’ And I said, ‘Yes, I’ll come.’ ”
Mma Makutsi replaced her spectacles. “And do you know who that was, Mma Ramotswe? That was Violet Sephotho.”
“Ah,” said Mma Ramotswe.
“Yes,” Mma Makutsi said. “It was her.”
“And was that the first time you had seen her, Mma?” asked Mma Ramotswe.
Mma Makutsi nodded. “I must have seen her in the lecture room, but I had not really noticed her. Now I noticed her, because nobody could miss what she was wearing.”
“Oh, I can imagine it,” said Mma Ramotswe.
“Can you, Mma? I think it may have been even worse than what you think. A very
short skirt, Mma.”
Mma Ramotswe did not find that surprising.
“The skirt was red, Mma, and then there was a blouse that was hardly a blouse. In fact, you might even have thought that her blouse was made from that stuff they make curtains out of—you know those curtains you can sort of see out of—not proper curtains. What do they call that material, Mma?”
“That’s it. Phuti’s aunt has curtains like that in her bathroom. I am sure people in the street can look right through them, and so when we go to visit her I always hang a towel over the window, just in case.”
“That is very wise, Mma,” said Mma Ramotswe. “People have no business looking into the bathrooms of other people.”
“They certainly do not, Mma. Or through any other windows for that matter.”
Mma Ramotswe pursed her lips. She was about to agree, but realised that she herself occasionally—and only very occasionally—glanced through the windows of others if she was passing by. She would never go up to the window and peer inside—that was very wrong—but if you were walking along a street and you walked past a window, then surely it was permissible to have a quick glance, just to see the sort of furniture that they liked, or the pictures on the wall, or possibly to see who was sitting in the room. If people did not want anybody to see what was going on in the room, then they should pull down a blind or something of that sort—an open window was an indication, surely, that they did not mind if passers-by looked in.
And, of course, as a private detective you had to know what was going on. If you kept your eyes fixed straight ahead of you, then you would be unable to gather the sort of everyday intelligence that was part and parcel of your job, and without that intelligence your ability to help others would be limited. So, looking through an open window was not so much an act of idle curiosity, it was an act of consideration for others . . . But this was not the time to have that debate with Mma Makutsi, and so she waited to hear more about this early encounter with Violet Sephotho.
“So, she called you over, Mma?” prompted Mma Ramotswe.
“Yes, she called me over. And then she said, in a loud voice, ‘Mma, tell me: are you going to a funeral today?’ ”
Mma Ramotswe drew in her breath; she thought she could tell what was coming.
“She asked me that, Mma Ramotswe,” Mma Makutsi continued. “And I did not know why she should say that. So I told her that I was not going to a funeral, and why did she think I was? She did not reply immediately, but looked at the others and then said, ‘Because you’re dressed as if you are.’ ”
Mma Ramotswe expelled air through her teeth. It was the most dismissive, disapproving gesture she knew, and this was precisely the sort of situation that called for it.
“The other girls all burst out laughing,” Mma Makutsi said. “And Violet was very pleased with herself. She smiled and said that she hoped I had not taken offence, but being a secretary was different from being an undertaker, and so were the clothes you should wear for the job.
“The others thought this very funny, and they all laughed. Have you noticed, Mma Ramotswe, how people love to join in when one person is laughing at another? We like to do things together, it seems, even if the thing everybody is doing is cruel or unkind.”
Mma Ramotswe thought about this. Mma Makutsi was right. “Especially if the thing is cruel or unkind,” she said. But then she added, “But that is only a certain sort of person we’re talking about there, Mma. And I think that most people are not like that. Most people do not want others to suffer. Most people are kind enough right deep down in their hearts.”
“Not Violet Sephotho,” said Mma Makutsi.
“Perhaps not,” said Mma Ramotswe. “Although even Violet might change one day, Mma. Nobody is so bad that there is no chance of change.”
Mma Makutsi looked doubtful. “You’re too kind sometimes, Mma,” she said.
“Perhaps,” said Mma Ramotswe. “But you’d think the college would have told her to dress more modestly.”
“I think they did,” said Mma Makutsi. “Not directly, of course—they gave us all a lecture on the importance of high standards in the way in which we presented ourselves. They told us that when we dressed for the office each day we should dress as if we believed that the President was going to call in and inspect us.”
“And what did Violet Sephotho make of that?”
“She just smiled,” said Mma Makutsi. “She smiled and then later on she said to the others that she knew what the President would like to see if he came to inspect an office. It would not be formal clothes but rather the sort of clothes that she wore—bright and optimistic clothes, she called them.”
“Nonsense,” said Mma Ramotswe. “The President does not want to see that sort of thing. Look at what he wears himself. He wears sober dark suits. He wears khaki when he has to go out into the country.”
“That is for camouflage,” said Mma Makutsi. “It is so that he cannot be seen by lions and wildebeest and such things.”
Mma Ramotswe looked doubtful. “I’m not sure about that, Mma. But anyway, I don’t think we shall ever get a visit from the President.”
The mention of camouflage made her think. It could be unnerving if a very important visitor were to come into the office wearing camouflage. He might be there for some time before anybody noticed him, lurking by the filing cabinet, perhaps, or in a corner, watching, waiting.
“Stranger things have happened,” said Mma Makutsi. “You never know.”
That, thought Mma Ramotswe, was true: you never knew.
Copyright © 2017 by Alexander McCall Smith. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.